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Models of Education: Overview

I’ve been thinking about the models teachers have for instructional decision-making. Theories are the foundation for the conceptual models we use to explain our observations and predict what could happen in our classrooms. Some theories are useful for day-to-day operations. We have theories to explain why math is hard for some kids, to predict who will get their homework turned in, and what our students might do to get better grades. The theories we use every day are like hunches. The problem for teachers is that our everyday theories may not be helpful for our students. Our instructional decisions needs to depend on substantially more than a hunch. I’m not saying we should abandon intuition. Intuition is a way to gain insight into problems. Our professional approach to educational practice, though, should be considered in light of models that are based on research findings.

The question is, “Which research recommendations do we follow?” As a body of literature, educational research points in different directions. Whether to use whole language or sytematic phonics instruction, for instance, was a question that became so contentious it was referred to as the Reading Wars. Deciding which research to be guided by in our instructional planning and decision-making is confusing. As a field, Education has received a lot of research attention over the last 100 years. We’ve been the theoretical stomping ground of countless researchers from multiple academic disciplines looking for the holy grail of education. Publishers and program merchants have found a niche for their products. Policy makers, lobbyists, consultants and curriculum specialists are busy aligning standards and current trends. We’ve inherited a storehouse of contradictory information to read and think and talk about. I want to explore some of the issues that surround the models of education that we commonly see, and maybe reach a rational place to stand within the overall discourse.

I found an entry point for my inquiry in a book chapter, “What Whole Language Is, and Why Whole Language” from Constance Weaver’s, Understanding Whole Language: From Principles to Practice. This book is a little different than the usual literature on the topic. In the introduction Weaver says that

Most of the professional literature on this topic is directed toward teachers. This book, however, is designed for a broader audience of not only teachers and teacher educators but curriculum supervisors and specialists, principals and superintendents, parents and members of school boards.

Weaver defines whole language as more of a philosophy than an ‘approach’ to teaching reading. As such, whole language is based on the principle of developing literacy in the context of authentic literacy practices that pervade the curriculum and are integrated into the whole life of the student. This view of literacy development stands in opposition to the conventional teaching practice of fragmenting knowledge into skills that are taught systematically.

These two opposing paradigms for literacy learning are profoundly different. Weaver points out that implementation of the philosophy depends on the teacher’s understanding of it, as well as his his or her willingness to let go of conventional teaching methods. This being the case, definitions of whole language are variable. The central thread that runs through whole language classrooms is a constructivist view of learners as active participants in the process of meaning-making rather than passive recipients of information presented by a teacher or text. Weaver refers to the whole language model as a ‘Transactional Model’ and to the other (behavioral model) as the ‘Transmission Model.’ Without going into detail about the particulars of each of these models, it is necessary to point out that in practice most teachers are not wholly aligned with either one of the two models. The models can be seen as existing on an ideological continuum of educational practices. Teachers often talk about being ‘so much’ of a whole language teacher, which I believe is an acknowledgement of practical and ideological limits to what we do in our work.

Weaver shared a very helpful graphic that was published in The Art of Teaching Writing (1986) by Lucy Calkins.

The graphic is a simple grid that contrasts teacher and student levels of input. I’ve redrawn it here because it provides a good reference for one way of understanding how these models translate into practice.

Quadrant 1 represents low student and low teacher input. It describes the classroom activity of teachers and students working within a transmission model of education. At its extreme limit, this model exemplifies an educational process that relies heavily on packaged curriculum materials, scripted teacher prompts, and a narrow range of acceptable student reponses.

Quadrant 2 describes classrooms in which there is high teacher input with low student input. This represents the practices of teachers who prepare detailed lessons that require minimal thought from the student. These lessons maximize the student’s opportunities to successfully complete the assignment. They may include pre-organized materials, worksheet prompts, extensive modeling, and/or detailed written directions. Weaver says that this type of classroom typifies what we have come to know as traditional education.

Quadrant 3 characterizes the the classroom with low teacher input and high student input. This, according to Weaver, represents a particular (perhaps naive) interpretation of what has been called “process” writing. Within this model students may be encouraged to write, but are given little feedback or instruction in strategies that will help them to grow. Students retain ownership of their learning but may not learn as much as they would in a direct-instruction classroom.

Quadrant 4 is where there is high teacher input and high student input. This is the whole language ideal. Responisibility for learning and making decisions is shared by teacher and students. This is the transactional model of education.

As a teacher who would describe himself as more 4 than 1, I still see artifacts of 2 and 3 in my teaching. Perhaps owing to limitations of the input model, or maybe due to the limitations of my own imagination, I can’t seem to find a place to locate myself on the grid. It’s hard to occupy different quadrants simultaneously. If I had to choose, I suppose I’d put my classroom practice somewhere in the bottom left corner of quadrant 4, or maybe the lower right of number 3. My philosophy is transactional, but that doesn’t always work for my students. So I’m left to wonder about the efficacy of a model that seems to force us to choose between a philosophy and real world conditions. I wonder if I simply don’t understand how to translate whole language theory into practice; maybe I need a better model.

It gets more complicated. Recognizing that curriculum choices reach beyond the merely cognitive, I know that any educational philosophy I embrace carries social and political consequences for my students. Looking critically at which groups of students are privileged and which are disadvantaged by our instructional decision making is where I enter the problematic space that education research has taken me.

In Social Linguistics and Literacies, James Paul Gee distinguishes between acquisition and learning as distinct processes for becoming fluent in social Discourses, which he also calls ‘identity kits’ or “ways of being in the world” (p. 127). With respect to literacy learning, acquisition involves becoming skillful in practice, without formal teaching. It is the way that all people come to know their first language. Learning involves conscious knowledge gained through explanation and analysis. It involves the attainment of meta-knowledge about a topic or a social domain. Gee believes that schools must provide students with both. However, there is a balance to be struck.

Acquisition must (at least, partially) precede learning; apprenticeship must precede overt teaching. Classrooms that do not properly balance acquisition and learning, and realize which is which, simply privilege those students who have already begun the acquisition process outside the school. Too little acquisiton leads to too little mastery-in-practice; too little learning leads to too little analytic and reflective awareness and limits the capacity for certain sorts of critical reading and reflection (p. 139).

Gee maintains that acquisition and learning are means to different ends, and that each is necessary for a person to gain the ability to manipulate a Discourse to one’s social advantage. They must have expressive skill, developed in practice, with speaking, reading, and writing. Students must also have analytical knowledge about how literacy is socially applied so they can use it to attain their goals. According to Gee, students need time in school to explore and experiment with literacy, but they also need direct instruction about literacy. Over-reliance on process methods can disadvantage students who are not already immersed in academic literacy practices. Many students from non-mainstream families don’t readily understand how to use metacognitive reading strategies, or how to make good choices for their own learning. I’m not saying that they can’t, but rather, I think they need to be explicitly taught how to operate within what for them is a foreign discourse.

I can’t embrace models that point uncritically to liberatory pedagogies if they don’t also acknowledge the need to provide literacy instruction to that end. Balancing the needs of students who require different levels of teacher input is one of the most complicated aspects of teaching. Our knowledge of our students, their needs, motivations and limitations is key. Students with social, cognitive, emotional, or physical challenges all need different structures to support their learning than do the students who are born into families for whom school literacies come as a matter of course. Finding the balance for some almost invariably unbalances the educational experience of another. The need for differentiated instruction is apparent. But what does that look like? Is it yet another model? I’m still reading Constance Weaver’s book, and my classroom is a work in progress. Each day is another revision.


  1. Dr. Michael Stacey wrote:

    I will be teaching a class on models in K through community college and this article is one of the few I could find on models. The University Library couldn’t even find any. Can you recommend some artricles on models in education?

    Tuesday, September 1, 2009 at 12:51 pm | Permalink
  2. John Manning wrote:

    I am a teacher with no degree but I have for many years worked on the developement of a classroom ecology that goes a long way to adressingthe issues you raise about differentiated learning. My kids operate out of a pedagogy that reflects Vygotski,Bronfenbrenner, Kohlberg etc.I have papers I have writen on this and can clearly show real success.If interested let me know.

    Thursday, November 5, 2009 at 3:22 pm | Permalink
  3. keasia wrote:

    this is a very good website

    Tuesday, February 2, 2010 at 10:33 am | Permalink

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